The 2017 expedition is markedly different from all eleven previous TIGHAR expeditions to Nikumaroro.
From Niku I in 1989 to Niku VIII in 2015, TIGHAR expeditions have been funded by contributions to TIGHAR, sometimes with help from the sale of exclusive media rights. I have traditionally been responsible for selecting the team, chartering the vessel, overseeing the research agenda, arranging the logistics - permits, travel, shipping, medical, communications, etc., etc., and personally leading the field operation (with one exception: the 2003 Niku VP trip was a small four-person expedition to look for the Wheel of Fortune). By necessity, TIGHAR operating expenses have always been included in expedition budgets.
On occasion, there have been “self-funded” TIGHAR research expeditions in which the participants paid their own expenses and made their own logistical arrangements. Examples include all three Fiji bone searches (1991, 2003, and 2011), the Alaska Electra crash site investigation (2004), the Solomon Islands oral history expedition (2011), and several others. I do not lead or participate in "self-funded" expeditions.
The 2017 expedition is neither a traditional TIGHAR-funded expedition nor a true “self-funded” TIGHAR expedition. Here's how it came about:
In the wake of the problem-plagued 2015 Niku VIII expedition, we decided that, for Niku IX, we would to try to raise the $1.75 million it would take to use manned submersibles to search the reef slope in 2017, but TIGHAR Senior Archaeologist, Dr. Tom King, had different search priorities. At a Board of Directors meeting in September 2015, he informed the Board that Betchart Expeditions, Inc. intended to reprise their 2015 tourist cruise to Nikumaroro in 2017. Dr. King announced his intention to accompany the Betchart cruise, as he had done in 2015, to supervise archaeological work performed by paying passengers who wanted to help him pursue his research agenda. He proposed to raise the money himself to pay for the passage of at least six experienced TIGHARs who would make up his staff. The Board approved his proposal provided we could negotiate an acceptable agreement with Betchart regarding TIGHAR’s involvement with the expedition.
This is how Dr. King presented his project in a November 16, 2015 posting to his independent Amelia Earhart Archaeology blog.http://ameliaearhartarchaeology.blogspot.com/2015/11/a-voyage-to-nikumaroro-in-2017.html
“A Voyage to Nikumaroro in 2017
Plans are firming up for another Betchart Expeditions trip to Nikumaroro. It’s scheduled for June 21st-July 11th, 2017, aboard the MV Reef Endeavor sailing out of Fiji. It will include a TIGHAR “self-funded expedition” – meaning that it’s up to my colleagues and me to finance participation by experienced TIGHARs and selected experts who can’t pay their own fares.
Here’s the plan in a nutshell. Last year’s Niku VIII expedition (See https://TIGHAR.org
), while it met all but its deep-water objectives, didn’t bring back the “smoking gun” evidence of Earhart’s plane on the reef that it was mostly designed to seek. However, the coordinated and cooperative Betchart Expeditions visit (4 days on island) uncovered some provocative possibilities and was thoroughly enjoyed by its participants. So we’re planning the 2017 visit with about twice as much time (8 days) on-island as we had this year. Right now the research agenda is as follows – always, of course, subject to revision as things develop.
1. Deepwater search: Despite the disappointing results of the 2010, 2012, and 2015 deepwater probes, which resulted substantially from equipment glitches, we want to take another stab at robotic scans of the deep reef, both adjacent to the hypothesized landing site off Nutiran and elsewhere, including off the Seven Site (where many have urged us for years to search). Walt Holm and his colleagues at Open ROV (http://www.openrov.com/
) have ROVs that we think will do the job, and as a bonus be controllable from the expedition ship, where everyone aboard can see what the ROVs see, in real time on screen. Personally, I continue to be dubious about whether the plane (which I do think is probably down there) can be found, at least via imaging in the visible spectrum, but given the snafus of the last three expeditions, we haven’t given the matter a fair test. I think that Walt, John Clauss, and Open ROV can give it that test.
2. Diver-depth search: There’s been a lot of SCUBA searching on the reef, but there’s also a lot of reef to cover, and things change all the time. Plus, it’s a helluva nice reef to explore. We’re planning a substantial program of SCUBA and snorkel diving, and use of a large glass-bottomed boat to get a serious overview of what may be down there.
3. The “cairn” on the northwest cape: In 2015, Bob Draper of Cotati, California – on the last day of the visit, naturally – found an odd concentration of rocks on the northwest cape, just outside the area that Gary Quigg and his team had searched intensively a few days before as part of Niku VIII. It’s probably just a concentration of rocks, but it’s about the right size and shape to mark an impromptu grave, and it’s close enough to where Art Carty has convincingly argued that Earhart and Noonan should have camped (“Camp Zero”) and where Noonan may have died, that it’s worth a close check. Assuming permission by the Kiribati government and with strict archaeological controls, we figure to section the cluster and excavate under about half of it to see if it covers a grave.
4. The “Big Ren” vicinity: As most faithful readers of this blog know, in 1940 human bones were found by the Nikumaroro colonists under a “ren” (Tournefortia sp.) tree on the southeast end of the island. We think the discovery site was what we now call the Seven Site, where we’ve found substantial evidence of someone foreign and probably female having camped. There are several ren trees on the site, one of which – we call it the Big Ren – appears to have been there in 1940 (to judge from aerial photos). This year, Dawn Johnson took samples from its vicinity and – back in California – exposed them to the trained noses of forensic dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics (http://www.hhrdd.org/index.htm
). The dogs alerted on two of the samples, whose location coincide with the place where in 2010 we found a “finger” bone that turned out to have too little DNA to sequence. So we plan to clear the Scaevola off this location and simply sit a lot of people down to scan the coral rubble that makes up the site, exposing any suspect object to ultraviolet light (in which bones and teeth fluoresce) and collecting (with strict controls) any likely bones or teeth.
5. The village: The colonial village at Ritiati has consistently produced fragments of aircraft aluminum, probably collected by the residents for use in handicrafts. We plan to select one or more home sites in the village, clear the coconuts and fronds off it, and give it a good hard look. We’ll also be trying to sort out what some strange dry-laid coral structures are; we’ve referred to them (based on unsubstantiated guesswork) as “pigpens,” but Kiribati experts Aana Bureteiti, Nina Jacob, Frank Thomas, and Jaimie Bach, all on this year’s visit, are sure they’re not – but couldn’t say what they are.
The “Shoe” or “Bivouac” Site: The site where the late Eric Bevington reported seeing signs of someone’s “overnight bivouac” in late 1937, and where TIGHAR found the remains of a man’s and a woman’s shoes in 1991, was more thoroughly investigated in 1997 with few results, but Kenton Spading insisted that we hadn’t really given it a fair look, and his criticisms have haunted me ever since. So we’d like to give it a detailed inspection.
7. Other places: We’ve learned to respect serendipity on Nikumaroro; things usually pop up where you don’t expect them, when you’re not looking for them. So we want to provide as many opportunities as possible (within limits of safety and respect for the island environment) for people simply to explore the island on foot and by kayak. You never know…
I’m responsible for organizing the necessary fundraising, and for overseeing the operation. Betchart Expeditions will make and oversee travel/ship charter arrangements. Our team will train and work with the rest of Betchart’s passengers in carrying out our research. We'll put on a "field school" for passengers aboard ship en route to the island, emphasizing ethical treatment of the island and its resources; those who want to take part in our work on the island will have to take the field school.
The overall cost to each passenger for the whole trip, including discounted round-trip airfare between Fiji and Los Angeles, is about $11,000; I should add that Betchart has moved heaven and earth to get us a good deal, and travel to such a remote part of the world IS expensive.
If you are able and willing to pay the above amount, welcome aboard! Please contact Betchart Expeditions to make arrangements.
But a lot of us can’t afford that kind of investment, so I’m trying to raise about $200,000, to cover the costs of conveying fifteen (15) experienced TIGHARs and selected specialists to and from the island. Tax-deductible contributions can be made to TIGHAR, which will hold the funds separate from its other accounts. I’m soliciting any and all ideas about fundraising, and am available to deliver an illustrated talk on the Earhart mystery, the Niku Hypothesis, and the 2017 plans, to any group that would like to give me the opportunity and let me solicit some support.”
On January 9, 2016 we signed an agreement with Betchart outlining TIGHAR’s limited involvement with the expedition.
By November 2016 it was apparent that we were not going to be able to raise the money to do a manned submersible search, so a dedicated TIGHAR-funded Niku IX was off the table. Expeditions, like politics, are “the art of the possible” so, as an expedient measure, we decided to "piggy-back" Niku IX on the 2017 Betchart trip. As we announced in the December 2016 issue of TIGHAR Tracks:
“For the new Niku IX we’ll add a lagoon search to the 2017 Betchart Expeditions cruise already scheduled to be at Nikumaroro for eight days – from June 28 to July 5, 2017. So far, about 40 passengers are signed up to participate in land-based searching guided by TIGHAR Senior Archaeologist Dr. Tom King and a staff of experienced TIGHARs. If we can raise the $250,000 (14% of the previous goal) Executive Director Ric Gillespie and a highly-qualified lagoon search team will join the expedition.”
Since then, we have been able to raise about $60,000, enough to keep TIGHAR going and continue the research but nowhere near the $250,000 goal. On the other hand, as reported in the March 2017 issue of TIGHAR Tracks, we don’t need to search the lagoon – only the passage leading into the lagoon. At present Andrew McKenna and John Clauss are scheduled to be on the trip. Andrew is an experienced diver who has served on several Niku teams and John is the only TIGHAR who has been to the island as many times as I have. If we can get the fundraising far enough ahead of the curve, we’ll put another experienced TIGHAR aboard the 2017 trip. Between now and June when the Betchart cruise departs, we need to raise at least $45,000 just to meet TIGHAR's regular operating expenses. Putting another TIGHAR diver aboard will take another $12,000.
Questions about other personnel, logistics, etc. should be addressed to Tom King via his blog. I know that some of his plans have changed but I'm not up to date on everything. The 2017 expedition is his baby. I won’t be going. I’m just doing what I can to give the expedition the best chance of finding something significant.